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By Jhon Sánchez,
I met Billy Lawrence in 2002 while attending Southampton College. Billy, Will to his classmates, was taking MFA classes even though he was an undergraduate student. I think we both took Beginning the Novel, French and Russian literature with Kaylie Jones. One of those summers, Billy told me he finished the novel he started writing in class with Kaylie. “I did it while working at the marina,” he said. I was impressed by his discipline, so it’s not surprising that in October 2017, he published his first novel, “The Punk and the Professor.”
- Where did you go to school after Southampton College, and what are you doing right now? Tell us what happened with the novel you wrote that summer there in the marina. Is “The Punk and the Professor” based on the book you were working on 2002?
Thanks, Jhon. I did the MFA at Southampton and then went right into teaching college English. I actually ended up writing two novels during that time period. The one I wrote during the summer at the marina was actually my first and I shelved it for a long time. The second one ended up as my MFA thesis. After the MFA, I found myself caught up in academic work. The Punk and the Professor actually began as a series of stories that I workshopped in the MFA program. As I was starting up my doctorate in 2010, I began revisiting those stories with the sense there was a full book. I chipped away at it. It became my sanity and escape from all the academic reading and writing I was submerged in. Overall, the book probably took over fifteen years to come to life.
- The novel reads very much like a memoir, with a consistent tone of reminiscence. Why did you choose that tone?
The novel is autobiographical. There was a point where I considered writing some of my true experiences as a memoir, but then I realized fiction is where I wanted to go with it. Fiction has more opportunity for the author, and privacy. I’d call it a novel based on true events though. I chose the first person past tense to create the reflective atmosphere and take the reader deep through the personal experiences of a troubled male adolescent. Some of those early stories in our program were written in third person, but the character was so detached. This whole story hinges on getting inside his head and the roller coaster of emotions he goes through.
- The story is told from the viewpoint of a person who already has overcome the conflicts of a teenager. Is the novel based on personal experience? What are the differences between you and Jack, the main character?”
Yes, as I was saying the book is very much based on true events. Everyone knows kids like my characters: troubled, confused, and even malicious. Of course, my characters are composites, and other than Jack, none of the characters really go that deep. The book is very much an experiment in first person narrative and the importance of place. Jack and I have a lot in common, more than any other character I’ve ever written. He was around far more sinister folks than I was. The big difference is he’s actually got more emotional control. I was actually way more out of control as a kid. We both had rough relationships, but creating this character’s unique struggles helped me consider the good side of my experiences.
- One of the values of the novel is that the narrator and protagonist, Jack, tells stories of his teenage years. Is it fair to say that young adults are the intended audience for your novel?
You know, part of the value is the observation into the mind and life of a male teenager, so I think parents, educators, psychologists and others can benefit from a story like this. Imagine Catcher in the Rye being classified as YA? That said, I could see those who are between 16-20 years old really identifying. I did not want to market the book as YA, and it’s not because I have anything against YA; there’s a lot of great YA out there, but I wanted adults to see this story too since they’re the antagonists.
- The novel takes place during the 80s in Long Island, New York with characters of low social economic status. There are many descriptions of fights, drug abuse, and wild sex. Do you think the new generation of Long Islanders of similar demographics has changed?
Long Island is a great place. It’s where I grew up and it’ll always be home, but like any place there are tragedies and dysfunction. I was following an LI news feed on social media last year, but I had to unsubscribe because I couldn’t take the bad news coming out of there everyday. I love when I hear rose-colored childhood memories of LI from some—that’s mostly class privilege, good for them. But really, kids everywhere get into things. Privileged high-class kids get into some bad stuff too, but poor kids don’t have the same way out; they can’t afford bail in the end. Growing up on LI, I witnessed some disturbing events and behaviors. Racism, sexism, and a cultish culture of groupthink—all too common. Awhile back, someone told me “Hey, it’s not so bad; everyone’s all just middle class people with kids now.” I said that might be the problem. But the worst of the worst are dead or in jail. I don’t think the generations have changed much in regard to what goes on. There are still fights, sex, drug abuse, binge drinking, steroids, irresponsible drivers, etc. but now technology has added a component to it all. But most people in the world are good. We’ve got to believe that.
- Now as a professor who has taught across the USA, what is your perception of the country’s youth today?
The youth have it harder in some ways because they’re up against technology. There’s always someone watching or recording them, and they’ve been conditioned to accept the privacy intrusion. They have so much, too much, information at their fingertips, and they’ve got to weed through so much more to figure out the truth. Everything is so much more complicated now. Opioid addiction has become more of a problem too. But they’ve also got some great advantages like awareness and connectivity. I’ve taught in high schools and colleges in different regions of the country, and I’ve been amazed at the great things that happen in some of these other places, and it has made me wish I would’ve had some of the support they have. Teaching college, especially community college, keeps me connected to the young, to a part of myself too. If I didn’t believe in their potential I wouldn’t be able to do what I do as a professor.
- What do you think of the legalization of marijuana, for example? What are the challenges we face while educating our youth after the legalization?
For a while, marijuana was on my banned list of paper topics in my courses. I didn’t want to read about these idealistic arguments of legalizing pot anymore, but then states started to pass medical marijuana laws. Now there are several areas that have legalized recreational use. It may not be as far as we think from becoming nationally accepted. If it did have wide-spread legalization, there would be some issues to contend with concerning the youth.
As you saw in The Punk book, marijuana is something that follows Jack. It’s part of the culture, yet he is cautious of it, maybe fearful. Alcohol and cigarettes are far more damaging to families, but pot can do weird things to some. If you already have emotional trauma or anxiety, marijuana can mess with you. The teenage mind is not fully developed yet and already has enough external stress. In my sequel, you’ll see some kids who developed a habit as youths and then take that addiction right into adulthood.
- The “Me Too” movement has called attention to sexual harassment of powerful men against women, most of them Hollywood actresses and politicians’ employees. But this predatory behavior is present also on all social levels. Your teen narrator talks to about his boss while working at a fast food restaurant, “But the counter girls— they got it bad. Counter girls came and went because if Phil wasn’t sexually harassing them, he was telling the boys to. The verbal abuse sometimes escalated to physical abuse, all just natural fun and kicks according to Phil. He called them “counter hos” as he slapped them on their asses and plucked their bra straps.” Jack recognizes that this was wrong, but he kept silent. How can we educate a teenager on how to speak up when witnessing such behavior?
Jack is so aloof at times. Another novel I’m working on has a male character who is completely opposite. And I have an awesome heroine in the works too. We need more who are outspoken when they see something wrong. Awareness of the issues through education is the only way to instill proactive behaviors. We need to teach the response. Seeing something wrong might trigger a feeling that it is wrong or crazy, but too many don’t realize that seeing something wrong requires an active response.
My novel is a book for boys and none of the female characters are developed much. I’ve even been asked about why the mom was so absent. The omission of the female depth was intentional, though Jack is quite tapped into the feminist spirit. He was raised by a single mom, like I was, and he grew up around a lot of women. The feminine is there in spirit. The conflicts in his life are because of the men. Jack also has an outrageous teenage lust for a few girls, something that could be culturally examined more, but he recognizes mistreatment when he sees it at the fast-food place and with Kara from school. He feels helpless in a system. The sexual harassment in this story is another good reason why adults should read it. Most couldn’t imagine what their young teenage children could be exposed to. We are in a better place as a society when we can be aware of the behaviors.
- Throughout the novel your character complains that he is disrespected by his teachers. As a professor, you understand teachers’ viewpoints in their interaction with the students. What are the mechanisms to achieve a mutual understanding and respect between teachers and students?
Jack Tortis doesn’t get a second chance from most. He doesn’t feel a connection. He doesn’t sense empathy from many of the teachers. No teacher is expected to be perfect; I know I’m far from it. We all say things that could be taken the wrong way. We all fail to say things when we should have. But trying is the key. Kids know when you make the effort, even if it comes off sloppy. Jack was lucky to have a few reach out to him in ways that built a foundation of memories. School might not have been an option for him if he hadn’t had those few glimmers of hope. In the end, he lands at an alternative school with smaller class-size and teachers trained to handle the rough kids. This book is pro-alternative school. So many kids just don’t work well in a huge, fast-paced, unnatural setting like a traditional high school. We need better understanding of personality types, learning styles, and more programs that foster alternative schools.
- What are your future literary projects?
I’m back working on my MFA thesis with major revisions, and I think it’s got a chance of seeing the light of day next year. The novel I wrote at the marina in 2002 is next up for revisions. I have a bundle of short fiction to get back to. I’m working backwards. But I’m also thirty pages into the sequel of the Punk and the Professor, a real roadtripping, twenty-something work, and I already know it’s a better book than the first.
Bye Billy Lawrence, better to say ciao Will, my friend.
Billy Lawrence has been dedicated to the field of education for eighteen years and has taught writing, literature, humanities, and social science courses at numerous universities and colleges throughout the United States. His first novel The Punk and the Professor was published in spring 2017. His other creative publications, (credited as WK, Will, and William) include poems and stories in various national and international literary journals, a trilogy of poetry chapbooks, and two collections of poems: State of Love and Trust (2005) and Punk Poetry (2016). He has a doctorate in education.
Jhon Sánchez: A native of Colombia, Mr. Sánchez immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum. Currently, a New York attorney, he’s a JD/MFA graduate. His work has been nominated for The Best of the Net 2016 and for a Pushcart Prize in 2015 and 2016. He was also awarded the Newnan Art Rez Program for summer of 2017. More of Mr. Sanchez’s work can be found at Caveat Lector, Breakwater Review, Newfound, Gemini Magazine, 34thParallel, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Swamp Ape Review, Sand Hill Review, Midway Journal and more recently in Midway Journal Volume 11 Issue 4